I remember learning about eating disorders in high school Sophomore year during health class. I was ignorant on the topic and at that time remember thinking, “Why would people do that?” I did not know that in 3 years I would be doing just that.
When my eating disorder began, I did not understand the harm I was doing to my body and mind. I had been running for close to 3 years, and at the time had been going through digestive issues not related to the eating disorder when it started. After months of doctors’ visits, I was diagnosed, but not accurately which I did not find out till much later in life. I was so embarrassed during the whole digestive debacle but was happy that I could continue to run.
During this chapter I was stressed, anxious, and fearful. I did not have any positive coping mechanisms to help me with these uncomfortable constant feelings. So naturally I picked up unhealthy ways to “cope” which harmed me mentally, physically, and emotionally.
My worth was based on the time on the clock when I crossed the finish line at every meet. This pressure was put on myself only by me; during that time, I had an extremely supportive coach and team. I barely made it through cross country my sophomore year of college; my body was ready to break down at the end of the season. I remember looking at the mile marker clock at nationals and as if my body were talking to me it said, “I’ve been through enough this year I’m burned out and done.” I finished that race but not in my normal competitive way. At the end of that season, I had pain in my knee that stemmed from IT Band syndrome.
On paper my sophomore year of track looked great. I was an All-American during indoor for the 5k and went to Nationals outdoor for the 5k and 10k. Despite this “success” I was screaming on the inside for help. I hated competing and hated running. What I was putting myself through behind closed doors held me back from doing my best, and most importantly being the best version of myself. Running used to fill me with confidence, but during that period I did not want anything to do with the sport.
For the first 2 years of collegiate running was my identity and my worth; without it I did not know who I was. During the summer after my sophomore year one day, I went upstairs and just began to cry uncontrollably. This was new for me; I had all the emotions building up that I was not expressing to anyone and was so mean to myself for the past year that I felt like I was exploding and releasing everything of which I was ashamed. As much as that hurt it was the day, I finally opened to my family about the eating disorder. In my head I was the “All-American girl” and all I could think now is “What am I?” That was a scary moment in my story. I felt so lost.
During that time, I did not believe therapy or medication would help. I really did not want to see anyone I just wanted someone to tell me how long this would last so I know what to expect. Little did I know that is not how it works! It is a journey for everyone, and everyone’s different and specific to them.
It took me a couple of therapists until I found the right fit for me; even that process was frightening I had such an all or nothing mindset that I thought. “Well one didn’t work so none are going to work for me.” I am also not a big talker so at first, I would just sit on the couch and just stare at the therapist not knowing what to say besides, “I have an eating disorder.” I would get mad/frustrated because I did not know why I had an eating disorder so I would just shrug hoping the professional would tell me why I had an eating disorder. Once I saw that they could not answer that for me the journey of figuring out why and who I was began.
Before that if you asked who I was I would say, “I am a runner” that was my everything. So, without running in my life, I felt worthless and like I had nothing to offer. That year I began the sometimes-agonizing process of how to love myself… this did NOT happen overnight! In fact, I still need to consciously remind myself to be kind when I become too hard on myself for whatever challenge comes up. During the early part of my therapy, I came across Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and learned to reframe and rewrite my thoughts and turn them into something positive that I believed. It is weird to think I had never thought about my thoughts! They were just running wild up there in my mind helping to shape my world which was not healthy. When I began the process of writing down my thoughts, I saw the pattern of cruelty and coldness towards myself; even I did not want to be friends with me!
After a year off from running my parents, therapist, and I decided I could return to college running, but I needed to be open about how it was going. I feel incredibly lucky that I was able to return and realize this is not the case for everyone. That year was by no means easy; it was like being thrown back into the fire except I had loving teammates, my family, and an incredibly supportive coach that had my back the entire way no matter when or in what place I crossed the finish line. I cannot imagine how it would have gone without them and their humor to help me along the way.
At the first meet of the season, I placed second, panicked, and slid back into old habits after the meet, but this time I did not hide in isolation and deal with it alone. Instead, I walked into coaches’ office and would be open saying that I struggled after that meet and went back to old habits because of the pressure I put on myself for the future of the season. He reassured me that he had no expectations for me besides my health and having fun. That was exactly what I needed so I continued through the season. Conference for me that year was huge; I did not talk about what it meant to me then, but this is what I remember from that day. Before the race I thought about images of running magazines/ or magazines in general that would have unhealthy/ unrealistic taglines tailored towards runners or people in general and I felt consumed with anger.
(Side note: For whatever reason anger (on race day) has been a strong motivator for me. If someone did not believe in me or my teammates, I would use that as fuel during the race and it usually worked the same thing happened that day at conference. I thought back to anything I heard or saw that tore me down or caused a reaction of “I’m not enough” and I used it. Also, I do not think anger is a good thing long term… it can negatively impact you if you hold onto it. In this case I would use it for a day and then let go and forgive.)
That day I was not the favorite to win, but I did. I remember thinking I did this for the people that are struggling with body image, that win to me was a message of “You can work through this, and YOU ARE ENOUGH!” I never told anyone that probably because I thought I was crazy, but I ran with my heart that day.
The medal from that meet I gave to my coach who showed my kindness and support throughout the season. He could have easily written me off and not wanted to deal with the struggles that I was facing, but he was there for me no matter what. When I wanted to quit because I said I did not deserve to be here he encouraged me to try no matter what the outcome.
Find people that love and support you. I could not have done this without them. I would love to share everything, but that would be too long .
My journey and your journey will be different…keep going and pay attention to people and activities that fill you with love, joy, and even laughter.
So many times, I failed and could not see a way out, but kept going. I will continue to fall but now when I do instead of criticizing myself, I reach out a hand and pull myself up with compassion, love, and encouragement and try again. For me I have accepted my life to be an ongoing, messy, and hopefully funny journey that continues to teach me more about myself and how I can spread love into this world whether it be big or small with no expectations just curiosity and faith. I never want to appear “perfect” anymore. What a boring adventure less life that would be. I will always be a work in progress and a beautiful one if I continue to show myself love, kindness, honestly, respect, and of course laughter.
If you read this and are going through a tough time, I hope you learn how to show yourself love in any small way. You are so worth it! May you never stop learning and loving.
By: Megan O’Grady Di Silvestro